Jay Michaelson
Wrestling with Steve Greenberg, p.3

Z:     "Wrestling with God and Men" is, in some sense, a political book. It is an argument. What are you trying to achieve?

SG:    I'm trying to be able to daven in a traditional community, to learn in the community. If the goal is to win a battle, we might as well not try. But part of what changes the law is the hearts and minds of people. Gay people need to be visible in traditional social environments. Admittedly, this is a partial step. We want not to be humiliated, and to be honest. That is the first step.

You don't attempt challenging Halachic methodology when you don't have a need – when you don't have real human problems with real human impact. So the first step is about making those people, and their problems, visible.

Z:     I want to ask you about something I call the ‘Huck Finn' moment. In the novel, Huck is traveling down the Mississippi with Jim, the runaway slave. He intends to turn him in. He's been told that if he doesn't turn him in, he's going to go to hell. But Huck gets to know Jim, and comes to a choice between his conscience and the system of morality he's been taught. And he says, in this crucial, coming-of-age moment, "Well, I guess I'll go to hell then." For me, having my own Huck Finn moment was crucial. I had to confront what I saw as a choice between religion and happiness. I said to God, "Well, God, I can't be miserable anymore, so I guess I'll go to hell then." And then I found that God was willing to go to hell with me. But that choice, I feel, is so important, and I feel like your book wants to avoid the choice, to say, well, sort of, here's a compromise.

SG:    The trouble with the ‘I'm going to hell' moment is, what do you do next? It's a binary choice. Either you deserve hell, or religion is nonsense. That's not acceptable to me. When I came out, I knew I would have to leave the rabbinate or make sense of it. I chose to make sense of it. The trouble is, rebellion doesn't help shape the terrain. It doesn't tell you where do go – only where you're not going to go. I wanted to remain in conversation with the traditional world. I want to say: ‘We want you to understand that the tradition requires you to engage with us more authentically.' I'm not trying to convince them – I want to obligate them to come up with something themselves. No religion can claim to exclude 7% of the population and claim that it's not a club. So, for the sake of the vibrance and life of the Jewish people itself, I wanted to remain in the conversation. Rebellion doesn't allow you to do that.

Now, I definitely did move through guilt, and frustration, and anger. That process is critical. But I think there is a unique opportunity here. Our willingness to be naked to the text makes the text naked to us. When I took the aliya on Yom Kippur, I realized that these verses had never been understood because gay and lesbian people haven't been at the table to interpret them and give their testimony. These verses are not known. And that is a tremendous opportunity.

Z:     But you recognize that most Orthodox rabbis will not accept your interpretation.

SG:     Yes, which is why I also offer a way for such rabbis to accept gay and lesbian people in their community. It's alright for an Orthodox rabbi to have a limited perspective of me, as long as he doesn't expect me to have that perspective of myself. He must know that I don't have to internalize that I'm an obsessive-compulsive, but I have to accept that that may be his view. I want to open up the possibility of remaining in the community. And I want to ask how one might read texts in a way that the traditional community cannot help but find a way to embrace gay and lesbian people.

Z:     Your book is subtitled "Homosexuality in the Jewish tradition," but the sources and figures in it are almost completely Orthodox ones.

SG:     This is my read of the Jewish tradition. Look, I'm an Orthodox rabbi. As long as I share who I am and provide a frame for my bias, I think I've gone far enough. But I did want to construct a conversation that would speak not only to traditional Jews. I hope I've achieved that.

Z:     I notice that in the "rationales" section you didn't include one of the rationales that's most popular these days, both in pop culture and also in the Roth tshuvah that is widely accepted in the conservative movement: that homosexuality is, in some way, "unnatural." Of course, Roth has to backtrack because homosexuality is found throughout the animal world, but he claims that it's not natural for humans. Why did you choose not to include this ‘rationale' in the book?

SG:    I don't think that term is helpful, and I don't think the argument makes sense. First of all, it's not offered anywhere in traditional Jewish sources. It's a contemporary argument only. "Natural" is not a halachic category, and the arguments that make use of them – I don't think they're very Jewish. In a way, homosexuality is as natural as any sin. Eating pork is natural. Circumcision, on the other hand, is unnatural; brit milah violates the "naturalness" of the human body. So, Jewishly speaking, naturalness is not an order that commands.

Z:     If the book is political, what's your vision of success?

SG:     Success is when a 16-year-old gay Orthodox kid has a life trajectory that's pretty good. No advocacy from the community, but also no humiliation and no lying. Hearts and minds change first – the law is the last thing to change in a social movement.

[1]       [2]       3
Image: Raphael Perez

Jay Michaelson is traveling in Israel this month.

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Between contemplation and affirmation
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Trembling Before You Matthue Roth
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Meditation and Sensuality Jay Michaelson
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May 2004

The Hamas Class of 1992
Michael Shurkin

Every City has a Soul
Jill Hammer

Wagner in Israel
Margaret Strother

Wrestling with Steve Greenberg
Jay Michaelson

T Cooper
Abi Cohen

The Stable
Ira Stone

Our 450 Back Pages

David Stromberg

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From previous issues:

Abraham Mezrich

My First Shabbos
Jennifer Waters

Shtupping in the Shadow of the Bomb
Marissa Pareles